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July 31, 2017

An Insider View Of Saigon’s Burgeoning Art Scene

Text by James Pham

For a country where freedom of expression has not always been nurtured, Vietnam boasts a thriving collection of riveting art

Casual visitors to Ho Chi Minh City (colloquially known as Saigon), Vietnam’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, could be forgiven for thinking that its art scene is relegated to well-done but kitschy reproduction paintings and an endless supply of traditional crafts like lacquerware and wood carvings of lithe Vietnamese women in ‘ao dai’, Vietnam’s iconic tunic dress. But those ready to delve beneath the facade of made-for-tourists souvenirs will be rewarded with an emerging art arena as loud and vibrant as the city itself.

Most art lovers will start by visiting the Fine Arts Museum, a gorgeous, colonial-era, ochre-and-white building whose period architectural details including stained glass and vintage tiles are almost as eye-catching as the works it houses. While the collection spans the ages mixing traditional Vietnamese painting and plastic arts, it really ends at the fascinating combat and propaganda art of the 1970s. Contemporary art would have to wait almost two more decades for the economic and political reforms known as ‘doi moi’ of the late ’80s to pave the way for conditions conducive to self-expression.

At the Craig Thomas Gallery, the lawyer-turned-artist-turned-curator it is named after prides himself on finding and nurturing young talent. “I think the main difference in our gallery is that we have always focused on younger artists where we can generally have a bigger impact,” says Thomas. “Last year we hosted four solo exhibitions for artists having their first curated gallery shows.” The gallery actively represents about 25 visual artists working in painting and sculpture but also performance, video and installation media. One such contemporary artist is Lim Khim Ka Ty for whom Thomas first curated a show in 2005. “She works every day and the positive effect from that can be seen both in her always-improving-and-evolving technical skill as a painter and in the somewhat more ephemeral quality of creating works with ever more emotional and societal relevance.”

Indeed, part of the allure of Saigon’s contemporary art environment is how excitingly new it is, with artists increasingly open to pushing boundaries. “If you look at the system that exists for artists – the educational system and the galleries that can represent them – there hasn’t been a very strong infrastructure,” says Sophie Hughes, founder of Sophie’s Art Tour. “The universities don’t make it part of their system to teach contemporary art; what they teach is technical skills. However, over recent years, more spaces have opened where artists can show their work and more young artists are going abroad and being exposed to different influences and a variety of contemporary materials. That has made them more experimental.”

Since opening in 2015, Dia Projects has generated a buzz in the art community for showcasing the exploration and experimentation of contemporary art. Set on the peninsula of Thanh Da just 20 minutes north of downtown Saigon but known for its rustic simplicity and rice fields, the independent, non-profit space exhibits a variety of media including painting, photography, video, installations and performance art. Indicative of the experimental nature of the gallery is MoT, a recently launched sound project exploring auditory experiences featuring local and international sound artists playing conceptual sonic pieces together. Other upcoming ones include an inaugural artist exchange programme in October, a sound art exhibition in November and performance art scheduled for the first half of next year.

While recent years have seen a long-overdue increase in exhibit space for artists, Hughes notes that the city still lacks the documentation of contemporary art — people writing about, critiquing, and discussing art. To address that need, Salon Saigon opened late last year in the posh confines of a historic house once the residence of a former US ambassador. “It is not just an art gallery but a place for artists and art lovers to gather, discuss and exchange ideas,” says director Sandrine Llouquet. “Our inspiration comes from the salons that flourished in France during the 17th and 18thcenturies which hosted gatherings — partly held to amuse the participants and to refine the taste and increase their knowledge.” Salon Saigon’s collection looks both forward and back, with the 15 or so artists taking on topics related to Vietnamese history or using traditional Vietnamese art or artisanal techniques to air their views on current issues, an encouraging development in a country where freedom of expression has not always been nurtured.

“Young Vietnamese artists now are so much more daring, provocative, almost ‘irritating’ in the way they take on contemporary themes of politics, gender and society,” says Shyevin S’ng, owner of her eponymous gallery in leafy District 2 (previously VinGallery), a tony suburb of Saigon favoured by expats with expense accounts.“While it’s much more open than it was before, some of the more daring work can only be seen at private, invitation-only showings in cafes and homes limited to just 20 or 30 people which makes it difficult for outsiders to access.” Like many of Saigon’s commercial galleries, S’ng’s recently remodelled space strives to ride the fine balance between being financially viable while still showcasing cutting-edge work. “Our clientele skews heavily towards international buyers,” she says. “The market is not so ready for local collectors, but while we’re waiting, I want to showcase more experimental, conceptual art.”

For now, the million-dollar question remains where Vietnam’s contemporary art scene is headed. “Contemporary art is such a great way to gain insight into modern-day Vietnam,” says Hughes. “It sheds light on the question of what it means to be a young person living here right now, addressing the issues of gender and sexuality and threats to the environment and also reflecting on history and exploring an often complicated narrative. In a country that is changing as fast as Vietnam, it is the artists who are constantly asking questions and revealing the inner workings of a nation and the people who live here.”

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